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14 Jan

The Deathbed Argument

John Calvin on his deathbed, with members of the Church in attendance. Protestant reformer in Geneva.

The book Death and the Irish: A miscellany is “a medley of 75 perspectives on death and the Irish” edited by Salvador Ryan and published by Wordwell. In a positive review Bridget English makes a minor criticism: “Philosophers have certainly shaped the ways that modern secular society conceives of death, yet there are no entries on the relationship between Ireland and philosophy.”1 Philosophers have also referred to death in arguments, and the review brought one particular philosopher and his “deathbed argument” to mind.

In Francis Hutcheson’s first book (published in 1725) An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue, Treatise II argues against Mandeville that there must be motives for benevolent action other than your own pleasure. To illustrate this, Hutcheson uses a thought experiment2
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29 Dec

Testability by Deduction

In the first chapter it was mentioned that the scholastic dictum, “Nihil est in intellectu quod nonpriusfuerit in sensu“, was too narrow; it is in fact equivalent to Hume’s criterion that for a word to have meaning it must denote something with instances.

It is now clear exactly why this is too narrow; there is no instance denoted by the word “gravitation”, and gravitation can be in the intellect even though it cannot be sensed. It is perhaps noteworthy that among early philosophers Berkeley, who was much against the use of words without a corresponding idea, concede that there was a legitimate use of words like “gravitation”.

In that chapter it was indicated that for the scientific outlook a concept must be capable of of being related to perception, directly or indirectly; it is now clear what is the precise way in which a concept is indirectly related to perception — it is by the mechanism of testability by deduction. We may also say that Ockham’s razor expresses this: entities that cannot be related to perception even indirectly are unnecessary and not to be introduced.

J. O. Wilson (2013) Foundations of Inference in Natural Science, London: Routledge, pp. 50-1. The original edition was published in 1952. The book outlines views of scientific inference developed since the end of World War I up to the 1950s (see PhilPapers).

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25 Dec

The Teacher Thomas Drennan

Interior of the First Presbyterian Church, Belfast.

Thomas Drennan was born in Belfast on 25th December 1696. Though he appears in the Dictionary of Irish Philosophers, nothing of any philosophical work he did survives: his sermons were never published. A later biography describes him as “an elegant scholar, a man of fine taste, overflowing benevolence and delicate sensibility”1 His major importance is of a source for the many philosophical friends he had though the preservation of his correspondence by his family, and as a link between the philosophy of the 1720s and the United Irishmen of the 1790s.

Drennan was a friend of James Arbuckle from his childhood2. Like the younger Arbuckle he attended Glasgow University, entering in the penultimate year of study and taught by Gershom Carmichael. He graduated MA in 1716 and then studied divinity under John Simson. His attendance overlapped with Francis Hutcheson, the printer John Smith and James Arbuckle.

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09 Dec

Saving Milton: his friend Lady Ranelagh and his defender John Toland

John Milton dictating 'Paradise Lost' to his daughter due to his blindness

John Milton is most famous today for his epic poem Paradise Lost, a poem that was almost lost due to the cause of Milton’s fame (or infamy) in 1660: his work writing defences of the Commonwealth against Royalist attacks. These were written when Milton was Secretary of Foreign Tongues to the Council of State from 1649. The works included Eikonoklastes (1649, justifying Charles I’s execution) and The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth (1660, arguing against the Restoration). After the Restoration, Milton had to be hidden by friends: he eventually was arrested and held in custody for a few months. Friends in high places worked to ensure he was included in the Act of Pardon. Their success meant that Milton could complete his half-finished epic poem 1.

Milton had first come to attention as a poet. His first published work was Lycidas, an acclaimed pastoral elegy written for Dorothy Moore‘s brother Edward King. It’s plausible that Dorothy Moore met at some point, though as far as I’m aware there is no record of it. In the 1640s Milton became acquainted with members of the Hartlib circle, including Samuel Hartlib, John Durie, Henry Oldenburg and Lady Ranelagh. Milton and Hartlib probably met in 1643 and in 1644 Hartlib circulated Milton’s tract Of Education, To Master Samuel Hartlib2.
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08 Dec

“Pious opinion”: the Irish Franciscans and the Immaculate Conception

Fresco of Virgo Immaculata (Mary, the Immaculate Conception) from St. Isidore's (Irish) College Rome

Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, possibly the most misunderstood feast in the Roman Catholic calendar. It celebrates the conception of Mary (the conception of Jesus is the feast of the Annunciation, celebrated on the 25th March.) Why “Immaculate”? In 1854 Pope Pius IX pronounced that Mary “in the first instance of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin”1.

This dogma was debated long before the 19th century. Irish involvement in the debate means that this is also a highly appropriate day to look at the group of scholars who disprove the theory that Ireland produced no influential religious thinkers2. (James Ussher can be cited as another 17th century counter-example.)

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24 Nov

The philosophy in Tristram Shandy

From ABC National Radio’s Philosopher’s Zone (2006) The philosophy in Tristram Shandy. “Tristram Shandy” is a novel that plays, not only with form (the unique handmarbled page, the typography, the fact the narrator digresses so much that he only completes the story of his birth in volume 3), but with philosophy, particularly that of Locke.

For a transcript of the programme and further information, please click here.
Further Reading and Listening

Glasgow University Library (2000) Book of the Month October 2000: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (online)

Karen Harvey (2014) “Nose to nose with Laurence Sterne and Tristram Shandy” OUP Blog (online)

BBC Radio 4: In Our Time (2014) Tristram Shandy (online). Featuring podcast with guests Judith Hawley, John Mullan and Mary Newbould and links to further information.

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17 Nov

Toleration in 18th century Ireland

Allegoric statue of "Tolerance", depicted as a seated woman with a torch in her right hand, and a shield on her left with the words "Concordia religionum" (harmony in religions).

This year, World Philosophy Day (17th November 2016) is celebrated immediately after International Day for Tolerance (16th November every year). The theme for World Philosophy Day 2016, therefore, is Tolerance.

In her message on World Philosophy Day 2016, Director-General of UNESCO Irina Bokova has this to say on tolerance and philosophy1:

Philosophy does not offer any ready-to-use solutions, but a perpetual quest to question the world and try to find a place in it. Along this road, tolerance is both a moral virtue and a practical tool for dialogue. It has nothing to do with the naive relativism that claims everything is equally valid; it is an individual imperative to listen, all the more striking because it is founded on a resolute commitment to defend the universal principles of dignity and freedom.

While an accurate description of the ideal of tolerance, it should be remembered that tolerance was not obviously a virtue in the past. It had to be argued for, and the acceptance of toleration waxed and waned over time. 

In the religious wars of 16th and 17th century Europe, toleration was generally a term of insult. The Thirty-Year War and the Eighty-Year War sought to establish right religion within Europe. The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 saw all countries recognise the 1555 Peace of Augsburg in which each ruler would have the right to determine the religion of his own state while allowing other Christians to worship privately and (limitedly) in public. This had some strange ramifications in Ireland.
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